Zionism’s New Boss
Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream
The Six Day War fundamentally changed the game, emboldening Kook’s followers and believers in religious Zionism. Under the tutelage of Kook’s son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, a new generation of young religious Zionists came to see their mission as once again settling the newly liberated lands. It was as much, perhaps, a personal awakening as it was a theological one: The 1967 generation, the sons and daughters of religious Zionism’s original guard, looked at their parents—milquetoast, many of them foreign-born, nearly all of them political moderates—and boasted that they would do better. They would rebuild the Jewish state east of the Green Line.
Thus, the settler movement was born—and the religious Zionist movement was split in two. On the one hand, the older generation continued to understand itself in terms of the old balancing act between the dictates of the Torah and the ethos of the state, a challenge that doomed them to play second fiddle on either side of the church-state divide. On the other, the new generation was awash in Messianic zeal. In 1967, for example, one of its most incandescent leaders, Hanan Porat, wrote with characteristic ecstasy: “Here I am—for the priesthood, for the kingdom, to kill, to be killed. O Lord, here I am. … This is how I understand the true meaning of the word pioneer.”
As the older generation died off, the younger generation began its ascent. Theoretically, there was nothing standing in its way: The majority of Israelis, even those who bitterly opposed the settlements and saw them as an obstacle to peace, couldn’t help but think of men like Porat—pioneering, bold, and idealistic—as the heirs apparent to Zionism’s true spirit. As the Jewish state matured, as it strove for normalcy and foreign brands and international acceptance, secular Zionism seemed archaic; what, after all, was the mission of a movement to establish a national homeland for the Jews in the State of Israel decades after such a home was already established? Secular Israelis looked at the nation’s founding ideology and could think of little use for it anymore, given that it had already accomplished its goal. Religious Zionists, on the other hand, were still going strong; they were rooted in ancient and immutable values, and their project, building settlements and reclaiming all of the land that God promised, was only getting started. Whether or not they saw the settlers as their secret id, successive Israeli administrations, even those on the other end of the political divide, continued to support them generously.
Plus, the religious Zionist movement had other projects apart from building settlements. In 1990, for example, only 2.5 percent of all IDF infantry officers were religious; by 2007, that number had skyrocketed to 31.4 percent, and it continues to grow. Religious Zionist activists set up newspapers, film schools, radio stations, and other public institutions, but they’d never been especially good at accumulating electoral power. Last election, in 2009, the religious Zionist votes were split between the Likud, the National Union, and Habayit Hayehudi. The former two, the movements’ main parties, received a combined total of seven seats in the Knesset, making the movement as politically marginal as ever.
That’s when Naftali Bennett stepped in.
Bennett is in possession of considerable talents, but his main asset is his charisma. It’s not the luster of the veteran politician, the kind of authoritarian aura Ehud Barak, say, strongly projects. Nor is it the elusive sort of pat sincerity that Bill Clinton has so finely crafted. Bennett’s mode of getting his point across—which I had occasion to witness when he visited Tablet Magazine earlier last year—is by coming across as an equal, a smart friend or an older brother who will never let his intelligence outshine his compassion. He listens, and when he speaks he sounds not as if he’s trying to sell you on his viewpoint but as if he’s eager to save you the embarrassment of being misinformed. It’s the sort of genial but steely leadership posture forged in infantry battalions or high-tech start-ups or any other unit that depends on its commander’s ability to convince his small band of followers of the sanctity of the goal ahead.
Bennett has been practicing this mode of leadership his entire life. He began his military career in Sayeret Matkal, the same commando unit that trained Netanyahu and Barak, before moving to another elite unit where he so much embodied the presiding spirit that he was called on to pen the unit’s new hymn. After his service, he received a law degree from the Hebrew University and, in 1999, founded the anti-fraud software company Cyota. The company struggled for a few years, but Bennett kept it alive long enough to see it through: In 2005, it sold to a much larger corporation for $145 million, making Bennett a very wealthy man.
His money bought him the freedom to dabble in politics, first as Netanyahu’s aide and then as the leader of the settler movement. But politics were a much wider, and much muddier, field than the self-contained environments to which Bennett was accustomed, and his style, in the early days in the public arena, could often be brusque.In September 2010, for example, Bennett, then the head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, agreed to a televised debate with Ahmed Tibi, the most prominent Israeli-Arab member of Knesset. Tibi is chubby, bespectacled, and quick witted, and he wasted little time calling Bennett and his fellow settlers “colonialists” and “usurpers.” “Ahmed Tibi,” Bennett said in response, “I’ll say it loud and clear: This land was ours long before Islam was even created.” He made a few statements along these lines, and then, just to make sure his point was clear, he thundered: “I’ll say it again. This land is ours. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews, long before you discovered the holy Quran. So, do me a favor: It’s ours.” The last word, in Bennett’s diction, seemed to have 16 syllables. Tibi, livid, tried to say something, and Bennett interrupted. Tibi urged Bennett to shut up; then, in the heat of discussion, he told Bennett that he considered him, a settler, to be like “a tumor that had to be removed.” Bennett fired back quickly. “When you were still climbing trees,” he said, “we had here a Jewish state.”
The incident generated little attention. The following morning, Walla, a prominent Israeli news site, ran a small article titled “Does the Yesha Council believe that Arabs climb on trees?” It was a dog-bites-man story: Here was Bennett, another hotheaded settler, another zealot, speaking bombastically. To the extent that the press reported on Bennett before the spring of 2012, most stories about him read like this. Some noted that he had served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Others, that he was the son of Jim and Myrna, Americans who had left San Francisco in 1967 and settled in Haifa. But these were tidbits; the main story was that Bennett, despite all the trimmings, was still a settler ideologue, and most of his public appearances, like the shouting match with Tibi, seemed to confirm that characterization.
And then came the change.
How Asma Agbaria-Zahalka is turning a socialist party of Arabs and Jews into a political phenomenon in Israel